Forgotten Albums: Peter Case, “The Man with the Blue postmodern fragmented neo-traditionalist Guitar”

So I think the story goes this way, not that it’s all that.

Around June 87, Marshall Crenshaw comes out with his fourth album Mary Jean & 9 Others. Huge Crenshaw fan that I am, I probably buy it the day it comes out. I like it pretty well but don’t think it’s anywhere as good as his previous effort, Downtown. A few months later, I’m over the Champaign Public Library, where I know they carry a subscription to Stereo Review. The October 87 issue reviews Mary Jean. Steve Simels is a big MC promoter, but he’s not too impressed with the effort this time: “Only an odd cover, Peter Case’s ‘Steel Strings,’ makes any impression at all.”

I’ve seen Case’s eponymous debut album, which came out about a year earlier, on display at Record Service. I now do a little digging, read good things, and soon make a purchase. It’s very, very good, and I even think I prefer the original version of “Steel Strings.” At this point I’m not aware of Case’s history with the Nerves and the Plimsouls, but this disk definitely puts him on my radar (where he winds up staying for around fifteen years).

Fast forward to the early summer of 89. Now I’m cruising the Urbana Free Library, thumbing through their CD collection, and I espy Case’s second album, which had come out mid-April and has a crazy-long title. I check it out and ask my officemate Paul to put it on tape for me. It’s not as immediately winsome as Peter Case, but there are plenty of tracks that come to grow on me. The musicianship is decidedly fab: David Lindley and Jim Keltner play on several tracks, as well as David Hidalgo of Los Lobos. Now thirty years on, I get the chance to talk up some of these tunes.

Leading off is “Charlie James.” The liner notes credit authorship to “Traditional,” which certainly feels applicable. A tiny bit of research on YouTube took me to a version by Texas bluesman Mance Lipscomb.

 

My college had a four-week May Term at the end of the academic year. My first year I took a topics class in literature focusing on short fiction. We spent one chunk reading several stories by Anton Chekhov. I’m pretty certain we covered Chekhov’s gun principle in that segment of the class, and it stuck; I was reminded of it when I saw a production of The Three Sisters, put on by the drama folks at the University of Kentucky a year or so later.

All of this came back to me again when I first heard Blue…Guitar‘s nominal single “Put Down the Gun,” a plea to a friend to calm down. Case definitely had read his Chekhov (even sticking his reference in the third verse).

 

When we were packing for my sabbatical year in upstate New York in 2004, I included a couple hundred CDs to play on the boombox we would use for a stereo. One of them was Blue…Guitar. (I’d bought a copy at Record Swap shortly before I left C-U. If I’m reading the sticker correctly, looks like it showed up there in April 92, which means I got it around the time Case’s third solo disk Six Pack of Love was released.) One fall evening, maybe around the time Ben was about to turn four, Martha was out somewhere and I stuck this on. The fourth track, a Cajun-influenced number called “Travellin’ Light,” comes on, Ben and I bounce around a little to it, but then he asks what the song is about. Maybe he’d caught the phrase “mixed-up kid” from the lyrics? I don’t remember now exactly how I put it–something about a young man who was wandering around without a home–but Ben was horrified. His face scrunched up and he started crying. Seeing that moment of empathy from one’s offspring, especially one so young…touching.

 

But track 5 is the piece on the album most likely to make me cry. Poor Old Tom had joined the Navy just about the time that Kelly and Sinatra were living it up in On the Town, but Tom never got the chance to trip the light fantastic. I’d love to know if Case had met someone like this, a homeless vet who’d been jailed and institutionalized, chewed up and thrown away. Regardless, it’s masterful; in June 2017, Case did a benefit for folks like Tom in his home turf of upstate New York.

 

I don’t have anything to say about “Two Angels” except that it’s a pretty ballad with Benmont Tench playing organ and it might be worth three minutes of your time today.

 

The penultimate song, “This Town’s a Riot,” showed up in a mix tape post three weeks ago. You can find it here if you like.

I was fortunate to see Case in concert once. James and I took him in at a bar near UK’s campus in early June 2000. He was touring in support of his most recent release Flying Saucer Blues (one of my favorites). It was just Case on guitar and an accompanist on violin. A true showman, he definitely knew how to play the crowd. I don’t remember much of the playlist now, but I feel certain he played Blue…Guitar‘s closing track, “Hidden Love.” This one might be in my all-time Peter Case Top 10; it wound up on another of my mix tapes somewhere along the way.

 

When he turned solo, Case left the rock and pop of his earlier days behind and concentrated on folk and blues (I generally like his folk-oriented stuff much more). Guess he wound up being a cult favorite of sorts, but I’m happy to be a member.

 

American Top 40 PastBlast, 5/30/81: Jim Photoglo, “Fool in Love with You”

Rhino Records struck nostalgia gold when it released the 25-volume Have a Nice Day series in a few installments during the 90s. Each CD in the set features a dozen pop songs from the 70s, some big hits but many others fairly obscure now. They’re generally arranged chronologically; I bought only the last eight, as those are the ones  with songs from June 76 onwards (they helped immensely in my quest to obtain AT40 hits from 6/76 to 5/86). As I’ve learned more about the music of the first half of the 70s these last few years, it’s occurred to me that it wouldn’t be terrible to look into buying some of the first 17 disks…

In 95, just around the time Rhino was putting a bow on Have a Nice Day, they started an analogous series for songs from the following decade. Radio Daze: Pop Hits of the 80s didn’t resonate with the buying public nearly so well, however, and Rhino pulled the plug after only five volumes (yes, I have them). The first disk actually reaches back as far as September 79; there are songs on Volume Five that debuted on AT40 as late as April 81 (six of Volume Five’s entries are on the 5/30/81 show, including five of the top thirteen).

I’d like to think that if a Volume Six had ever been issued, it might have included this week’s #38 song, Jim Photoglo’s “Fool in Love with You.” This was his second and last trip to the Top 40; he’d reach #25 in early July. Then again, since his first hit, “We Were Meant to Be Lovers,” is on Volume Two, they may have passed it over.

“Fool in Love with You” was very tough to find digitally—I wound up buying the album of the same name as a Japanese import. Photoglo was on 20th Century Records, which shut down soon after this song hit the charts. Perhaps that’s a primary reason why it’s essentially unavailable and never played now. That’s a shame; it’s a decent slice of adult-contemporary pop. Maybe someone can whisper in the right person’s ear and get it on Yacht Rock Radio this summer?

The video, on the other hand, is pretty weak sauce. In some ways it reminds me of the clip for “He Don’t Love You,” by the Michael Stanley Band from earlier in the year, except with an even lower budget (but less overacting). I get that it’s from the pre-MTV era; nonetheless…

Photoglo still records occasionally, and he’s written a number of country hits over the years.

 

American Top 40 PastBlast, 5/25/74: Ray Stevens, “The Streak”

Back in early March I took a shot at ranking the “best” #1 songs of 74. I didn’t include “The Streak” in the discussion then, but I’m going to put myself out there now and try to make a case for it to be considered a very good record.

First, there’s a lot of clever writing. The two bits the female backups get are pretty strong: the goes/clothes “rhyme” is good, and the whole rude/crude/mood/nude thing is just about perfect. While Stevens is fortunate that so many words rhyme with streak, he makes most of them count. “Unique” is pedestrian, and “peek” and “physique” are fairly obvious choices (though their implementation is solid), but “critique” and especially the double entrendre “cheek” are next-level good. I’d definitely yank the “shameless hussy” line out from the end but one could argue it’s within character for Ethel’s husband. (I suppose that brings up what exactly Stevens is getting at with his hick-on-the-street-that-gets-interviewed repeatedly character—how much is he being ridiculed? My impression is that Stevens mined that terrain with some regularity, like it or not.)

I’d also argue that it’s well-constructed. The on-the-scene Action News Reporter-talking-to-a witness construct is creative, and it is humorous that he gets the same guy each time. And I love the way Stevens moves into the basketball playoff piece directly from only a single run-through of the chorus (after doing it twice the first time). It also taught this ten-year-old about mooning and being incensed.

Novelty songs tend to flame out pretty quickly, but “The Streak” had staying power compared to most songs of its ilk: eight weeks in the top 10, including three at #1 (this show is the middle of those three). It took an element from the zeitgeist and made an iconic cultural moment out of it.

Interested to hear differing opinions on the matter.

It was this show, first re-broadcast six years ago, that allowed me to introduce “The Streak” to my then twelve-year-old son. We were visiting my sister-in-law in the Atlanta area for the holiday weekend, and I was about a year into listening to AT40 religiously again. By this time I’d discovered the marvel of the Tune In app and knew about the broadcast times of several stations. We listened to parts of it at various times over Saturday and Sunday, and I explained what streaking was after he heard the song. Not surprisingly, he found it pretty amusing.

The timing was good. Just a couple of weeks later, Ben was attending a bridge camp for youth offered at the Lexington club. One night, one of the instructors dropped a card on the floor in the middle of a hand. In response, she cried out, “Don’t look, Ethel!”  Pretty sure my son was about the only kid there who caught the reference.

Not Bitter Any More

Several years ago, my wife customized the ring tones on her phone for the folks who by far call her most often: our son, her sister, and me. Martha conducted a deliberate and thorough search for music that reflected something about the caller. For Ben, she chose the opening measures of Beethoven’s “Für Elise;” it was the piece he was working on at the time. When Ruth calls, it’s the “Javanaise” movement of Claude Bolling’s Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano, which they first encountered in a music appreciation class they took their first year of college. Since the two of them talk a couple of times a day, I hear it a lot!

Coming up with something for me turned out to be a little more difficult, since my tastes are decidedly less classical. Martha wanted something without vocals, and because she would be editing an .mp3 file, it’d be easier if it came from the beginning of the song. I thought about what was in my collection that I really liked and also had at least 30 seconds of intro. After considering two or three pieces, we agreed that “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” from the UK band The Verve, would work nicely.

I’ve been aware for some time about the kerfuffle between Verve leader Richard Ashcroft and the Rolling Stones, but hadn’t dug deep in trying to understand the details. I knew that The Verve had sampled something from a Stones piece but for the life of me couldn’t determine anything in “Bitter Sweet Symphony” that sounded like it was out of the Jagger/Richards playbook. And I’d read that songwriting credit and royalty issues were involved in the resolution of the dispute.

I probably didn’t know, however, that Ashcroft and his former bandmates had received essentially nothing for their biggest smash. Until now. I’m not a lawyer, but this has to be a much more equitable solution than what was in place. Well done, all.

 

 

 

5/3/80 and 5/19/79 Charts

First, the May 80 show that was supplied by Premiere and also played by the VJs on SXM’s 80s on 8 earlier this month.

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A reminder about my code: the three numbers to the left of chart position are, in order, # of weeks on show to date, last week’s spot, and prediction for next week. It’s been a while since I checked on how my predictions fared. Not overly well here–I’m counting eight correct, with several off by one or two and some big misses on the songs I thought would hang out one more week but turned out to fall off the chart. I was ready to defenestrate “Call Me” but it still had three more weeks to go at the top; its successor is sitting all the way down at #24 on this show.

Next, what I thought about those tunes:

HarrisTop50050380

Even though I thought Chris Cross was heading for #1 in the real world, he’s stalling out for me. The Pretenders will start a four-week run at the top starting the next time. Utopia had just hit #2. I’ve been seeing some dissing “With You I’m Born Again” over the last week or so in other posts about this show, but I always found it pretty and emotionally stirring. I can withstand your alternative opinions about the matter.

On the half of the chart I’m not showing you, two songs that didn’t visit Casey-land are hanging out. “The Spirit of Radio” was very much a favorite at this moment and is sitting at #35. I was also digging on Warren Zevon’s “A Certain Girl” quite a bit–it’s #47. Neither one got much higher, belying my actual level of affection for them. Over the next couple of years, there would eventually be songs that never made AT40 that reached my personal Top 10.

And finally, this past weekend’s 79 show:

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AT40051979pt2

A little better on the prediction front this time–12, I think? Still wrong about a change at #1, though…

Obviously I listened to this show forty years ago but didn’t remember either the LDD or Livingston Taylor stories as I heard it on Sunday. I found the Streisand request moving enough: 82-year-old man in the Atlanta area recovering from a stroke dedicated the song to a high school sweetheart who’d visited him a couple of years earlier and took him out on a lark, to dinner and a movie (A Star Is Born, naturally). The writer noted that he hadn’t heard from her since the holidays; those listening in our house wondered if she’d fallen ill herself.

American Top 40 PastBlast, 5/18/85: Don Henley, “All She Wants to Do Is Dance”

Yesterday I spent the day at a bridge tournament in Lexington. My team won the knockout event we entered. It was a little unexpected, given the experience and quality of some of the other teams, but overall we played well.

I don’t get out to play all that much these days, maybe 3-4 partial weekends for tournaments and a dozen club games a year—this was my first time out since February. Maybe I’ll do more after the nest empties, but the biggest impediment to playing these days is my job; as the average age of the bridge-playing population continues to increase, most folks are retirees and the better-attended games are those offered during the day.

My parents both learned to play bridge in college, though I think Dad took to it better. The game lingered a little in the air as I grew up; my sister and I found and played a few times a variant of the game, Bridge for Two, which the folks must have purchased in the early years of their marriage. I made noise occasionally about wanting to learn to play the real thing, but I don’t think there were more than one or two half-hearted efforts toward teaching us. I played lots of other card games with friends—spades, hearts, rummy—but learning bridge remained elusive.

Finally, the ball started rolling in the summer of 84. The four of us tried a few hands one evening after Sis and I returned home from our respective colleges. I had no idea what I was doing but my interest was piqued. A few weeks later I was working as a counselor at a computer camp at Transy, and it turned out a critical mass of the staff wanted to teach ourselves the game. Bidding was primitive and at times we knew just enough to be dangerous, but some of us got hooked. Mark H (the need for an initial will make itself clear in the coming weeks) was my best friend at Transy and one of my fellow counselors that summer; after we got back to school in the fall, he and I whiled away many an hour dealing, bidding, and playing out hand after hand. We began to reason out the skeleton of a bidding system, trying it out on our friends when we got together on the weekends.

Sometime during that junior year of college we realized there was a bridge club in town. One day I called to find out about the times of their duplicate games. Monday evening was novice night, a game for people with less that 20 Masterpoints (the currency of the American Contract Bridge League and the means by which bridge players are ranked). So it was on 4/15/85 that Mark and I drove out to a strip mall at the corner of Man o’ War Boulevard and Pimlico Parkway (is Lexington a horse town, or what?) and found the Lexington Bridge Club tucked inconspicuously at the end of a hallway. We were by far the two youngest people there and maybe, outside of the director, the only males.

This being the mid-80s, the venue was the opposite of smoke-free (if I get lung cancer, those first years at bridge clubs are a likely contributing factor). Regardless, I met many delightful folks that evening; some have passed in the intervening years, but there a few I still see occasionally (one just yesterday): Sheila, Sally, Pat, and especially Della and Geneva.

One generally gets (fractions of) Masterpoints by finishing in the top 40% of the field in a bridge game. I guess it helped that we were among fellow novices that evening, but Mark and I finished high enough to earn our first 0.13 MPs. Needless to say, we went back regularly over the next thirteen months, right up until graduation from Transy. We became known as “the boys.”

When I returned to town a little over six years later, the club had moved. There’d been a big hubbub over the smoking issue and some folks stopped playing when they couldn’t smoke at the table (it’s striking to think how much things have changed in this respect over thirty years, especially in a tobacco state). While one always has more to learn about this magnificent game, I was a fair amount better at it than when I had left in 86.

Such was my bridge obsession in the spring of 85 that I was inspired to write a parody of Don Henley’s current hit. “All She Wants to Do Is Pass” does a decent job of mimicking the original in a few places (“The Stayman Convention—the local bid”) but it could definitely use some polish, and of course, it’s a little funnier if you understand bridge lingo. Nonetheless, here it is for your reading pleasure:

AllSheWantsToDoIsPass

Henley himself is #14 on this week’s show, heading down after peaking at #9. Listening to “All She Wants to Do Is Dance” now, it sounds over the top enough to warrant parody from other realms besides that of a card game.

 

We’re heading into graduation week here at Harris Central, with lots of events to attend and preparation for celebrations to undertake in the coming days (a party at our house on Saturday, and Ben’s Eagle Scout Court of Honor—jointly with a good friend—on Monday). I’ve got a recurring feature to put up later in the week, but there’s a solid chance that posting will be lighter than normal for a little while.

American Top 40 PastBlast, 5/19/79: Alton McClain and Destiny, “It Must Be Love”

AT40’s switch to a four-hour show at the beginning of October 78 causes problems these days for the stations that rebroadcast shows from the 70s—naturally, almost all of them are allocating only three hours for the program. On those occasions when a countdown from the last fifteen months of the decade is offered, stations have a choice: play just the Top 30/32/33 (depending on the week), or go with an alternate show from an earlier year provided by Premiere. I’ve found maybe four or five stations nationally that will start an hour early to play the first hour of a four-hour show, but my schedule doesn’t always allow me to hear it (it’s a challenge this weekend). I understand why stations don’t want to make allowances for this variance, but it’s hard on the purists out there…

A significant downside to this matter of timing is some nice but now-obscure songs that struggled to make it the lower 30s never or rarely get heard as a part of the series.  Case in point: this week’s #38 tune from one-hit wonders Alton McClain and Destiny, “It Must Be Love,” a disco number whose groove reminds me a bit of Cheryl Lynn’s “Got to Be Real.” It spent just four weeks on the show and topped out at #32 on 6/9. That’s high enough to have made the second hour of the show, but unfortunately, that one was guest-hosted; it won’t ever be offered by Premiere. This means your one shot to hear “It Must Be Love” on a truncated three-hour show will be the next time they feature 6/2, as it leads off Hour #2 at #33.

A bit about McClain: she’s from Baltimore and moved to LA in the mid 70s to try to break into the music biz. She and the two women in Destiny recorded three albums for Polydor but had just the one hit (one of her group-mates, D’Marie Warren, was killed in an auto accident in early 85, a few years after they split). McClain married Skip Scarborough, the producer of their third album. (Scarborough co-wrote “Giving You the Best That I Got” with Anita Baker and one other person, “Lovely Day” with Bill Withers, and has solo credit for “Love Ballad,” a hit for both LTD and George Benson. Not bad.) She’s recorded a couple of gospel albums over the years, runs a foundation in the name of her late husband, and still performs occasionally. I found a two-part story, published this past February, on Electronic Urban Report (a link to Part 1 can be found if you click through), in case you’re interested in learning even more.